How can children learn to cope with the murder of a parent?

The murder-as-dubiously-titillating-entertainment brigade should be required by law to watch Channel 4's A Killing in the Family. Plus: Killing for Love .

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All of us experience the loss of someone we love at some point in our lives: we can only hope this happens later rather than sooner, and that we have some time to prepare. But there is loss, and then there is loss. Kirsty Cunningham’s empathetic documentary A Killing in My Family (8 March, 10pm) followed a group of children over the course of a residential weekend organised by the bereavement charity Winston’s Wish. These children had one thing in common. Each of them had lost a relative – in most cases, their mother – through murder or manslaughter.

Three of the children, sparky sisters called Chloe, Chelsea and Lottie, had lost both parents. As Lottie, the youngest of the sisters, at nine, framed the story: “Mum and Dad split up, and Dad was jealous. A few days later, Dad came up with a plan.” The “plan” involved a knife. When the girls came downstairs next morning, their lives were changed for ever.

“I need red for the blood,” said one girl, storyboarding in felt tip her own circumstances: a dead mother, an imprisoned father. “How do you spell ‘killed’?” a boy asked. “Is it with a curly ‘c’?” The hope was that by producing a narrative in a physical form – a spooling roll of paper depicting events scene by scene – the children’s imaginations would cease to run away with them. But it was about talking, too, the better to unblock cauterised emotions. “What’s justice?” a small boy asked, when a police family liaison officer came in to answer questions. Complicated though it was to answer, the policeman took this inquiry in his stride. The next one, however, winded him. “Why did my dad kill my mum?” asked Lilly.

Heart pounding, I waited for him to ­attempt to explain rage and misogyny to a six-year-old. But the camera moved on. I still wonder what on Earth he came up with. Meanwhile, Lilly’s paternal grandmother was cloistered with the other adults now closest to these children in a building nearby. It was, she told the group blankly, a row that got out of hand. Her son . . . He hid the body, said she was missing. And now he’s in prison, and the trouble is she still loves him – and so, for the moment, do Lilly and four-year-old Leah. This wasn’t particularly elegant film-making. It couldn’t hope to be, without tipping into intrusion. Yet, in its desolation, it felt powerfully necessary. The murder-as-dubiously-titillating-entertainment brigade should be required to watch it by law. In the UK, one child loses someone in their family as a result of murder or manslaughter every day.

Familial violence also lay at the heart of the German-produced Killing for Love (7 March, 10pm), shown in the Storyville strand. The film revisits one of the most notorious murder cases in recent American history: the killing at home in Virginia in 1985 of Nancy and Derek Haysom. The man convicted of this crime was a nerdish and unnervingly innocent-seeming 19-year-old German student, Jens Söring, the boyfriend of Elizabeth Haysom, the couple’s coolly beautiful and smoothly manipulative daughter. He is serving a life sentence.

Haysom, apparently having egged him on, was convicted as an accessory to murder before the fact, for which she received a sentence of 90 years. She says Söring was infatuated with her and that he wanted to help her get rid of her hated parents (her mother, she alleges, abused her as a child). For his part, Söring does not dispute his obsession with Haysom. However, he has long insisted that it was his then girlfriend who butchered her parents and that he confessed to try to save her.

The film was sometimes fuzzy in the matter of facts. Even so, if this was on Net­flix, everyone would surely be making more of a fuss about it. What strangeness. What nastiness. The former has mostly to do with Haysom, who was educated at Wycombe Abbey, and who in the dock sounded not unlike the young Diana Spencer. The latter is connected mainly, though not entirely, to the tawdry, incompetent and utterly inhumane “justice” dispensed in this case by the state of Virginia. Parts of the US, you suddenly remember, were stinking rotten long before Trump was ever in our sights. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda